Wijith DeChickera desires to salvage at least a few precious pearls from the burning wreck that has turned safe harbours into troubled waters

An image of clear and present danger faced by shipping to our island is a container ship in rough seas while a menacing shape lurks underneath. In a meme reminiscent of Jaws, that vessel is clearly the ill-fated MV X-Press Pearl while the shark-like object prowling submerged is our erstwhile Pearl of the Indian Ocean.

But that meme’s creators got their symbolism wrong.

It’s the amorphous form of Sri Lanka that’s facing threats from ocean and overseas. These come lately in the shape of ships laden with dangerous goods and ships of state bearing inflammatory materiel.

There’s also our floundering ship of state…

And betwixt cargo vessels on fire offshore and interventions of nations spouting red-hot rhetoric, we’re in-between rock and hard place. Will Sri Lanka founder?

PEARL OF GREAT PRICE We need calmer seas, safer havens, balmier weather. Not only from bombastic propaganda about maritime hub status but also ad hoc policies at home and the first shots of contesting neo-imperialism at large. Let’s wake up and smell the rubber hitting road and belt – pun intended.

Sri Lanka has long been at the crossroads of Eastern and Western worldviews. It’s also the gateway through which a fresh challenger – China, an emerging trade imperialism-based world power – to the West’s fading empires will mount its foray against a foundering dreadnought: the US’ flagship economy.

It’s problematic whether confrontations to establish hegemony will be real – local, regional, logistical – or whether shadowy showdowns would eventuate in virtual battlegrounds from bourses to cyberspace.

Our Indian Ocean pearl (still crying acid-tasting teardrops at stormy seas it sailed in May) is the keystone in an arch spanning the neo-Maritime Silk Road. It offers China an invaluable gem to crown the People’s Republic’s ‘String of Pearls’ strategy.

Recent pacts with Pakistan – a newfound ally of both nations – offer our tiny and yet by no means insignificant republic reciprocal access along the Sino-driven Belt initiative into Central Asian markets.

FLAWED PEARL-DOM Is the Indian Ocean becoming a Chinese backwater?

Statesmanlike seafarers will also note countering swell of the Quad, which mounts tactical naval exercises to deny any ambitions of dominance by that eastern empire. This is the politico-military power balance. And it shows in the murky waters of aid, loans, grants, pacts, currency swaps, manoeuvres, machinations and international investments.

Virtual competition between the planet’s chief competitors is perhaps exemplified by over 75 percent of the world’s most valuable tech stocks (some 25% of the global stock market) being tied up by American and Chinese players.

China’s reserves in Western markets (to the tune of US$ 3.2 trillion in April) may be only the iceberg’s tip. That Eastern giant is strategically expanding investment portfolios to Europe, Latin America and the East African seaboard, to minimise holdings stateside (currently 65% of its loans are to the US) and mitigate America’s waning influence over the world.

We’d do well to batten our hatches against the heavy weather small oceangoing ships of state such as ours face, caught between Scylla and Charybdis, as Sri Lanka is between China and the States.

Hardball season started with US President Joe Biden directing his intelligence services to reinvestigate how SARS-CoV-2 originated – with the finger of suspicion pointing eastwards.

Au contraire, Chinese leader Xi Jinping determined his countrymen will literally show a new face to friendly nations overseas through strategic trade and conditional investments, which Uncle Sam characterises as ‘debt-trap diplomacy.’

PEARLS BEFORE SWINE Recent events at home indicate that adroitly navigating such perilous international waters is not Sri Lanka’s obvious forte these days.

We demonstrated selective interpretations of sovereignty’s fundamentals – perhaps rightly rejecting the US’ MCC grant while going overboard to make accessing the Port City (Colombo International Financial City a.k.a. CIFC) smooth sailing for putative Chinese neocolonialism, to say nothing of casino internationalism.

Not that China’s natural interest in our welfare should spark off irrational Sinophobia among undiscerning naysayers. But that our government’s unseemly haste to unilaterally accept all the Supreme Court’s tweaks to a partially unconstitutional Port City Commission Bill, before hurriedly passing it into law sans proper parliamentary debate, leaves its integrity open to interpretation.

For a nation battling major fires (often literally) on many fronts, vaccination anomalies and COVID-related communication fiascos may be the least of our worries.

From maritime conflagrations to commodity scarcities; through the use of taxpayer funds to plan luxury vehicle imports for politicos while suddenly imposing long overdue fuel price hikes on a swamped populace; to electorates facing floods, fiscal woes, and friends of the executive allegedly making hay while the sun shines and misguiding the leadership; as well as numerous hardships faced by farming and fisher communities, our sins are legion.

A maritime hub we’re not (we are merely a transhipment hub) – only in name and ambition as woeful efforts to save the X-Press Pearl proved. As for corruption in our erstwhile pearl, seaborne plastic pellets cause pollution but criminal politicos at the bottom of the ocean is a solution!

Add treating our solvency crisis with liquidity fixing fiscal and monetary policies, and one trembles that we’re still afloat…